bigfootyCrikey Sports has the pleasure of having a guest post by Jamie Johnstone, a blogger at BigFooty, Australia’s largest and most popular AFL internet forum. This post was first published at BigFooty.


BigFooty’s Jamie Johnstone writes:

As a lifelong Melburnian, I’ve always had two great constants in my life. My footy club North Melbourne and The Age.

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So it is that I feel a great disappointment to see one of them on its last legs; losing money hand over fist, struggling to make it through week to week, cutting staff, trying to dress up a shiny new facility as genuine structural success … a slow decay.

Lucky my footy team is doing alright then.

The Age, one of the flagships of Australian non-Murdoch media, is in serious trouble. You have to start asking the hard questions: how long can it keep up the charade, how long the old girl can keep fronting up? How long before the powers that be — some would say inevitably — call time on a once magnificent institution? And when push comes to shove, who should be blamed for this terminal decline?

The Age ran a story inaccurate and agenda-driven — about the finances of the North Melbourne Football Club yesterday.

It is a shame that The Age didn’t observe the most basic tenet of journalism and check its story with the target.

As the NMFC has demonstrated, many of the claims in The Age story are simply wrong. Others are deliberately skewed, taken out of context, figures massaged. To suit an agenda.

For a long time, it was just chip on the shoulder North fans like me who claimed that Football’s First Lady, The Age’s football editor, Caroline Wilson nursed a grudge against our club.

We don’t need to run through the litany of anti-North articles by Wilson over the last five years. The fact is that many in the media and footy world now see our view is correct.

Wilson’s Channel Nine colleagues Garry Lyon and Craig Hutchison have repeatedly called her to account over her anti-North bias. Her peers recognise the simple fact that Wilson has been running an anti-North agenda for a while now, one that has led her to practise poor journalism in pursuit of her agenda.

Earlier this week, Football’s First Lady herself made an intriguing observation midway through a trademark hit piece on North President James Brayshaw.

“Brayshaw won’t like this and, while his inner sanctum of North and media buddies will accuse this columnist of being obsessively anti-North Melbourne, that will not help the Kangaroos any more than he has lately.”

Note the lack of denial from Wilson. Other journalists, recognising that there’s a view afoot that their integrity is being called into question, would issue a robust denial. A vehement denial. The good journalist is independent, independent, independent.

Yet Wilson acknowledges the claims against her and continues apace. The reasonable reader can only assume that she is comfortable with the view that she’s obsessively anti-North Melbourne. Or even just plain old anti-North. Whatever happened to journalistic integrity?

Let’s cut to the chase then. The Age, via its Chief Football Writer, is convinced North is not going to make it.

Me, I reckon The Age is in deep shit itself.

In fact, in a good old fashioned Deathmatch, I’m willing to bet that the North Melbourne Football Club will outlive The Age in its current form.

That is, The Age will go under before North does.

Let’s have a look at the evidence. North’s financial situation is well known. You can look at the figures in the link above. Its not great but it is not as bad as some make out. And it’s certainly better than The Age’s.

Like papers all around the Western world, The Age is losing readers and crucially, advertisers, to the online world. North is part of the biggest sporting competition in the country, one that is about to sign a $1bn TV rights deal. The equation is simple — The Age is in a dying industry, North in a growing field.

It is telling that Wilson’s attack on North came on the same day that Borders went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Age and its parent company Fairfax have a great deal in common with Borders: they’re both dead tree industries being rapidly devoured by the cheaper, nimbler and simply more attractive options available on the Internet.

The Age’s coverage of North Melbourne’s financial affairs sneers at the fact that North has recorded regular operating profits, saying that the underlying financial position makes them mere window dressing and unsustainable.

Yet a quick squiz at Fairfax’s own situation reveals a very similar situation: the ailing organisation has only just returned to profit but industry insiders remain unconvinced the company has what it takes it in the medium let alone long term.

You can’t blame them when there’s very strong suggestions that The Age has been fudging the figures on its circulation. The Age has cut so many staff in recent years it is a shadow of its former self. The lesson internationally is that cutting down on editorial staff to cut costs is self-defeating and leads to a vicious circle. Fewer editorial staff leads to a thinner product leads to a less attractive product leads to reader disenchantment leads to fewer readers leads to lower circulation and dropping ad revenue and bang, you’re back where you started.

The takeaway, as my colleagues in the corporate world would say is simple: North has a minimum of five years — the length of the impending TV rights deal — to get its house in order. But the reality is that interstate clubs take decades to achieve stability, if at all. That Andrew Demetriou today identified Port and Brisbane as being of major concern to the league is telling. Gold Coast and most pertinently GWS are going to need decades of nurturing.

To provide the steady revenue stream to allow that mothering, the AFL needs an 18 team competition. After the Fitzroy experience, it knows that it cannot bully Melbourne sides into mergers or relocations. On that alone, North is on safe structural ground. Add to that the fact that North has an exciting young coach and list, a stable long term sponsor and now a naming rights partner for Aegis Park and the future is far better than the interested parties at Spencer Street would have you believe.

And to Spencer Street we must now turn our attention. Like North, The Age recently invested in a shiny new facility. Yet all the evidence tells us that the building will soon stand only as a monument to the passing of daily broadsheet newspaper journalism in this city. The Age is backed into a financial corner and being pummelled by market and social forces it cannot hope to control.

In five years time, North will still be playing in the Australian Football League, one of 18 clubs in a league that will have signed a new blockbuster TV rights deal. Yes, it will probably have the lowest membership and attendances of any Melbourne club, but then, there’s always going to be someone at the bottom of the table. Its highly likely North will be playing some home games in Tasmania or Ballarat. But its home base will be at Aegis Park on Arden Street. It will be called North Melbourne.

The Age? My bet is The Age will have gone entirely online by 2016. It will have cut its staff even further. It will source all its foreign news from wire services and overseas outlets like The Guardian and Washington Post. Wire copy topped and tailed by subs will be passed off as local news. There’ll be even more ad-driven copy, advertorials desperately masquerading as “features” or “lifestyle”. It will be a skeleton of its former self, a victim of its own hubris.

Melburnians, especially at this time of year, are more likely to turn to the back page of the paper first as the front. Readers don’t want to be embroiled in one woman’s bizarre personal crusade. They want timely, accurate reporting and informed and insightful comment.

Not endless vendettas that rely on fudged figures and spurious claims. Caroline Wilson and The Age have declared war on North Melbourne. They aren’t the first do that and they won’t be the last. We’ll see who gets the last laugh on this one but the evidence, both historical and contemporaneous suggests it won’t be the scribes from Spencer Street.